Recently I was accosted through my phone by a caller from my old university who was intent on raising funds for future students. The fundraiser was a skilled talker who used her voice, tone and purring words to ingratiate herself with me over the course of ten minutes. I wasn’t going to hang up.
She also had some highly emotive stories about poor kids who had benefitted from the university’s scholarships, including a personal friend and an eminent scientist, and, finally, my earnest caller urged me to help to make the world a better place by allowing the potential of all people to be fulfilled through paying £1,000 over two years.
However, I was not interested in making the world a better place (I would prefer to find someone to sponsor through university rather than paying into a fund) and my admission of that conviction soured our relationship. My caller’s voice became strained, although her words remained pleasant, as she asked me if my reluctance to pay came from my lack of money at the moment or “a more fundamental objection”. I persevered with my line: “I don’t believe in the idea”, yet my companion reinterpreted this objection to mean that I wasn’t comfortable with paying. Perhaps I had financial problems that I didn’t want to admit?
And so our talk ended unsatisfactorily and I doubt she’ll call me back. Shame.
Perhaps my reluctance to give away my money came from my past experiences with charities. Once, I was stopped in Glasgow by a ‘charity mugger’ for a wildlife charity who beseeched me to save the planet by providing habitats for endangered animals. This man was very good at his job and I was quite naïve. I agreed to give £15 a month to the charity. I was reasonably happy with my gift; there was no feeling of buyer’s remorse from me. However, I happened to run into that same man about two months later when he was drinking in town with friends. He told me that he had no sincerity in his interactions with the public and that he didn’t give money to the wildlife charity or to any other charity.
Now, I could have cancelled my subscription at any time to release myself from a sense of responsibility for the environment created in me by an insincere chugger, but I didn’t. I allowed four months to pass before I cancelled my subscription. And what were the benefits of my giving? I suppose that the charity was able to do some good with my money, although the situation for the world’s wildlife is probably worse now than it was six years ago due to factors beyond their control. It could be that the money was wasted: it failed to achieve what I had wanted it to. However, there were psychological benefits for me since I felt happy because I had been generous. The belief that I was helping animals did lift my mood.
Evidently, giving money to charities may be ineffective in achieving whatever it is that you want to achieve. The animals will still be endangered, the homeless will still be homeless, cancers will continue to kill, the children could be irreparably damaged already, various groups will endure yet more persecution. This is the point at which many people throw their hands in the air and refuse to pay into speculative projects to help particular causes. They do have a good case and they will not lose money through their choice. There is nothing wrong with saying no. It is a sensible choice that is unfairly criticised as showing selfishness.
My argument is not against such people per se. Instead, I want to encourage people to research the charities and their chances of succeeding in their goals before they commit to giving money. It is sensible to avoid speculative giving. You should at least read about the charity through their website or any other literature that you have about them before committing to giving any money. You should know how much you will give to charity annually and also how long your giving will last.
Nor do I agree with those who argue that it is one’s duty to give to charity simply because one is able to do so. I see giving to charity as a personal choice which may be done out of virtue, but virtues are not duties; they must be chosen and cannot be forced onto someone. Moreover, the tax systems in the UK do take money from workers for the purpose of providing essential services for everyone (including the NHS) and so all of us who work in the UK are already giving a substantial percentage of our income to charitable purposes.
I have taken charitable giving into account for my budget and I have decided that the money I’ll give this year will not exceed 5% of my total income. Personally, I donate regularly to a cancer charity and I have given one-off donations to a Christian charity, wildlife charities, and special causes that have come to my attention such as the Stephanie Inglis case. Additionally, I have decided to give to charities when shopping online by registering on the easy fundraising website, which is a form of passive giving. In each case I have had a clear idea of how much I would give and why I wanted to give that much.
In short, I do not allow myself to be harried into my decisions by feelings of guilt or out of a sense that I am required to give something. Neither should you. Instead it is sensible to investigate your options carefully and only donate to something that you believe in and that you think will be effective.